Otto Jespersen on language: ‘Everything is dynamic’

May 26, 2016

Language: Its Nature, Development and Origin by Danish linguist Otto Jespersen appeared almost a century ago, in 1922. It has inevitably dated in some respects – e.g., occasional sexism and ethnocentrism – but in linguistic outlook it feels for the most part thoroughly modern, compared with some commentary on language change and grammar even today.

In March I read the elegant hardback copy (Unwin Brothers, 1959) of Language I picked up in Charlie Byrne’s bookshop last year. A few excerpts follow, more or less in the order they appear in the book.

The first four chapters, comprising Book I, offer an illuminating history of linguistics as a science. They also feature this eloquent diversion on ‘correctness’:

The normative way of viewing language is fraught with some great dangers which can only be avoided through a comprehensive knowledge of the historic development of languages and of the general conditions of linguistic psychology. Otherwise, the tendency everywhere is to draw too narrow limits for what is allowable or correct. In many cases one form, or one construction, only is recognized, even where two or more are found in actual speech; the question which is to be selected as the only good form comes to be decided too often by individual fancy or predilection, where no scientific tests can yet be applied, and thus a form may often be proscribed which from a less narrow point of view might have appeared just as good as, or even better than, the one preferred in the official grammar or dictionary. In other instances, where two forms were recognized, the grammarian wanted to give rules for their discrimination, and sometimes on the basis of a totally inadequate induction he would establish nice distinctions not really warranted by actual usage – distinctions which subsequent generations had to learn at school with the sweat of their brows and which were often considered most important in spite of their intrinsic insignificance.

If you haven’t read Jespersen, the passage gives a fair sense of his style: formal in a lightly scholarly way, but infused with lively vernacular (‘the sweat of their brows’) and altogether accessible. He writes long sentences that build to long paragraphs, but his care for logic means the complexity is noticed chiefly in its appreciation; he has a talent too for the pithy phrase.

Discussing Wilhelm von Humboldt, Jespersen zeroes in on the fundamental dynamism of language, and the related fact that speech is primary:

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